Last Christmas, I gave Addie’s maid Beckett her happy ending for the historical Christmas event on Ramblings from this Chick. If you’ve read the 1920s-set Lady Adelaide Mysteries, Nobody’s Sweetheart Now and Who’s Sorry Now?, you’ve already met Addie’s rebellious younger sister Cee. Cee likes to think of herself as a flapper who breaks as many rules as a marquess’ daughter can without getting caught. She chafes under her strict mother’s watchful eye and her older sister’s annoying wisdom. She wants to be different, an Original, a Bright Young Person. The very last thing she wants is to do the expected and conventional, like marry her dishy distant cousin Ian. But it’s Christmas, and magic is in the cold, crisp Cotswold air.
Gloucestershire, Christmas Morning, 1925
The procession marched by, and Mama scurried after it to talk to friends in the churchyard. Addie closed her hymnbook and tucked it back between the oak slats. “Shall I invite Ian to breakfast at the Dower House?”
Cee wrinkled her faintly-freckled nose. “No.”
“Why not?” her sister asked. As if she would finally accept the same answer Cee had given a thousand times already.
Lady Cecilia Merrill was not romantically interested in Ian, Marquess of Broughton even if everyone in the county thought she should be, expected it, counted on it. Had already made a wager on the most likely date of their wedding, as they did in Regency gentlemen’s clubs’ betting books.
She did not wish to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner with him. Not a cocktail or a canape.
She pulled down her cloche and pulled up her fox fur collar, as the old stone church was invariably freezing no matter what time of the year. She could see her breath, for heaven’s sake! Cee wished she was wearing long woolen underwear and boots, but as a Bright Young Person, fashion was everything, so silk stockings and smart suede pumps it was.
“You know why. If he comes to breakfast, Ian is going to ask me to marry him when he finishes his kippers. I can feel it in my bones.”
“So what if he does? A Christmas engagement is most suitable. You can be a June bride. And your bones are twenty-six. It’s time you got settled.”
Addie always thought she knew best. Six years older that Cee, she’d been married and widowed and now was something of a crime-solver, which would be shocking if the news ever reached the upper echelons of society. The Merrill sisters were daughters of the late Marquess of Broughton. Marquess’ daughters did not generally mess about with dead bodies. So far, too many murders had occurred for anyone’s comfort. Why, Cee’s own life had once been threatened!
Addie had driven over from Compton Chase to accompany Cee and their mother to Christmas morning worship in her childhood parish. She must be feeling extra holy, as she’d attended her own church’s midnight service just a few hours ago. It didn’t make her any less interfering, though.
“Don’t you dare leave me!” Cee whispered as her sister sprinted from the pew before Cee finished putting on her kid gloves. Her sister was soon lost in the exiting crowd, and Cee bit back a curse. She was in church after all.
She sat back down and blew her nose into a monogrammed handkerchief, wondering if she’d wind up with pneumonia for following the family’s Christmas tradition in this ancient, arctic church.
Ian had adapted to family traditions remarkably well. There was nothing wrong with him per se. He was a distant-enough half-cousin who had inherited the marquessate when Cee’s father died.
Papa had liked him and thought him a worthy successor. Mama liked him. Addie liked him. Even Addie’s terrier Fitz liked him, but that meant nothing—the dog liked anyone who had the potential to provide a rasher of streaky bacon or a pair of good leather shoes.
Everyone Cee knew liked Ian. And deep down, she did too. He’d been invaluable recently, standing up for them all in the face of scandal when he could have shrugged and walked away.
But Cee didn’t want to be pushed. And right now, she felt prodded on all sides, even if she was last to leave the church. The match was practically ordained, and, as her sister said, very suitable indeed. Cee would return to the house she grew up in, have a lovely batch of fair-haired children, and lead local society, just as her mother had.
Where was the excitement in that?
“Good morning, Cecilia. Happy Christmas.”
Cee turned, and there was Ian, looking straight out of an Arrow Shirt advertisement, golden curls, blue eyes, square jaw. Any girl’s dream, really.
“Hullo.” She sounded surly even to herself.
“Your mother and sister are stopping at the Vincents on the way home with a basket and asked me to take you back.”
No wonder Addie was in such a rush, the fiend.
“They invited me to breakfast, too. I hope that’s all right.” He touched her elbow, steering her down the slate aisle.
Just as he’d do when they were married.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Cee snapped. “One has to eat.”
Ian greeted the still-lingering vicar and shook his hand. Cee followed suit.
“My lord, Lady Cecilia, it warms my old heart to see you two young people in church together. You make a handsome couple.”
“We’re not a couple!” Cee and Ian spoke at the exact same time, Ian quite forcefully, it should be noted. Cee stumbled on the granite step and he caught her.
The vicar’s fluffy white brows knit. “You’re not? I was under the impression—oh, well, never mind. At my advanced age, I get mixed up, or so my wife is only too pleased to tell me at every opportunity. Go on home and enjoy some figgy pudding. Separately, of course.”
They walked down the gravel path through the lych-gate. “You didn’t drive?” Cee asked with some regret, since her pretty new strapped shoes pinched a little.
“No. I walked over from Broughton Park. It’s a glorious day, isn’t it? Look at the color of the sky! I’ve never seen such a blue.”
With her luck, if Cee looked up to admire the allegedly perfect firmament, she might slip on a patch of ice. So she minded her steps, clutching onto Ian’s arm.
He was very quiet. Too quiet. Cee was tempted to chatter with nerves, but she held her tongue. The silence became almost…comfortable.
They took the shortcut, a hedge-rowed lane that eventually led to Broughton Park’s back field. Cee had been this way hundreds of times, but could still admire the jewel-like berries in the frost-tipped bushes and the twittering birds enjoying their Christmas breakfast.
“You’re right. It is a lovely day,” she said. “Chilly, though.” My word, she was discussing the weather. Ian would think she was a flat tire.
“Yes. I wonder if I’ll miss the cold.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t you know? I’m off to Australia at the first of the year. It’s high summer there. My friend Matthew and his sister Abigail manage a sheep station in Queensland. I hope to pick up a few tips for my Cotswold flock, but I should be back before spring planting.”
Cee had briefly toyed with vegetarianism last year, but she did like a good lamb chop with mint sauce. She couldn’t imagine personally shearing—or worse, butchering—a living creature, however. “A woman sheep farmer?”
“Oh, Abby’s a great girl. You’d like her.”
Ian sounded far too enthusiastic. “I suppose she’s some Amazon.”
“Oh, no. She’s about your size. Pretty as a picture and smart as a whip, too.”
What rot. They emerged from the tunnel of trees. Cee allowed Ian to help her over the stile and stayed a little too long in his arms. She looked up into his smiling face. His eyes were as blue as the sky above.
“You won’t forget me while you’re out there, will you?”
His smile vanished. “No. I could never forget you. Wouldn’t want to.”
“You’d better not,” Cee said. She lifted her chin, which had frequently been called stubborn. “I haven’t any mistletoe handy, but I would not be averse to a kiss before we get home. To…to celebrate the season. It’s Christmas, you know. Of course you know. We’ve just been to Christmas service. There was a creche and everything. Carols.” Goodness, she was a babbling idiot.
“Really? You’re quite sure?”
“Quite.” Cee closed her eyes and waited.
His gloved hands cupped her face, his lips brushed hers. He was far too gentle—she wasn’t a glass ornament to be hung high on the Christmas tree to prevent breakage. Cee rectified the situation by tugging down on the velvet collar of his Chesterfield coat and was rewarded handsomely. Her toes curled inside her new shoes and she shivered under her fur coat.
Who knew Ian was such a capable kisser? More than capable. If he continued in this extremely satisfactory manner much longer, they’d be late for breakfast.
Kippers be damned.
He broke the kiss too soon. “Cee, will you—”
“Yes. Yes, I will.”
Sighing with relief, Ian held her close. “You are the very best Christmas present a man could ask for. An angel.”
Cee was very sure that wasn’t true, but she’d much rather kiss him again than confess to her many faults. He’d find out soon enough. June didn’t leave much time for her to turn completely angelic, but she’d give it a try. Miracles happened at other times of the year besides Christmas, didn’t they?